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HomeIssue 3That 000 call: Top cop to get answers

That 000 call: Top cop to get answers

Two significant questions remain about the police response on the night when the manager of the tennis centre, Matt Roberts, was under siege by an armed mob threatening to kill him: How long did it take 000 to get through to the police, and how long did it take for the police to despatch a unit to the scene?
New police Commander in Alice Springs, Kate Vanderlaan, who has served in Alice Springs for several years previously, says she will get answers. She contests Mr Robert’s account, saying police in Darwin had answered the call from him in no more that 53 seconds. “Certainly he was not put on hold for 46 minutes, as some people have said,” she says.
Mr Roberts says he received no help from the police for 46 minutes, was kept on hold by 000 for much of that time, and the mob had already left when police finally arrived. “I have never claimed to have been on hold for 46 minutes” – and neither had the Alice Springs News report asserted that.
Mr Roberts says Cdr Vanderlaan is playing games with words: “OK, if I wasn’t on hold, what was I on? I was in limbo. I was on the phone for a total of 23 minutes on two calls, listening to the operator saying ‘won’t be long now’ or ‘hang in there’. The fact is no police arrived for 46 minutes and when they came the mob had just gone. Kate is more worried about dancing around the facts than about me and the kids. That makes me sick and that attitude should send shivers throughout the town.”
About Mr Roberts’ claim that the 000 operator had asked him “In which state is Alice Springs?” Commander Vanderlaan says:  “That question was not asked by the police call taker.” The News has asked Telstra whether one of their 000 operators asked the question.
Mr Roberts remains adamant that it was asked: “It was during my second call to 000. It was like a slap in my face. I can still remember where I was standing when I heard it. It’s like remembering where you were when you heard about 9/11 or the shooting of President Kennedy.”
When you make a 000 call from Alice Springs you get an operator in a Telstra call centre in Perth. The operator will direct the call to police, fire or ambulance in the appropriate location.
Mr Roberts’ call for help was directed by 000 – which he says answered after about eight rings – to police HQ in Darwin. HQ is in direct contact with police units on duty in Alice Springs, and assigns “jobs” to cops on patrol, usually without talking to anyone in the Alice Springs police station.
“The despatch unit is in direct contact with members on the road,” says Cdr Vanderlaan. “When the Alice units book on they are booking on in Darwin. The computer banks tell the despatch people which units are available. They have to book on and off for each job.”
Cdr Vanderlaan may well be right that once a police line and a police operator became available, the call from 000 was answered quickly, but Mr Roberts’ complaint is about the entire handling of his 000 calls, not just the police end of them.
Cdr Vanderlaan says all 000 calls in Australia go to Telstra call centres first, either in Perth or Sydney.
Cdr VANDERLAAN: You have to talk to Telstra about how the system works.
NEWS: Are you happy with it?
Cdr VANDERLAAN: Yes, there is never any delay. If I ring 000 now it will go immediately to Perth, they will say what’s your emergency and it will go to Darwin. The issue was, when there are no lines available then it gets re-directed back to Perth and then they will send it back. And that’s why, as I explained on the radio, it’s impossible to be put on hold for 46 minutes if you ring 000.
But … that can mean that you are in limbo for that time, as Mr Roberts put it – and most people would find that unacceptable.
Cdr VANDERLAAN: When there is no line available [the call] gets re-directed back to Telstra until a line becomes vacant.
NEWS: Why can’t it go to Alice Springs?
Cdr VANDERLAAN: Because the call centre is in Darwin.
NEWS: Is that a good thing, for the call centre to be in Darwin?
Cdr VANDERLAAN: Yes, for efficiency.
NEWS: Do you have the time intervals from the 000 call being made by Mr Roberts and Darwin answering?
Cdr VANDERLAAN: I’ll get those details for you.
NEWS: But you listened to the recording?
Cdr VANDERLAAN: Yes, I listened to the recording of the conversation between Mr Roberts and our call taker, not Telstra’s.
NEWS: The durations we quoted in our report were completely wrong?
Cdr VANDERLAAN: Yes. It’s impossible for someone to be put on hold. He was mistaken about what putting on hold means. Being put on hold means, you answering the phone and saying ‘I put you on hold’. Our call takers would never do that. They are not allowed to put 000 people on hold. Once the call was able to be put on a line to Darwin it was no more than 53 seconds before it was answered. The longest a 000 call [took] to be answered was 53 seconds. Quoting 46 minutes is completely wrong.
NEWS: How long did it take 000 to obtain a line to Darwin?
Cdr VANDERLAAN: I’ll get those details for you.
NEWS: That’s where it starts to add up.
Cdr VANDERLAAN: Yes, but it could add up in any place. I don’t know. We can’t answer that because we don’t know how long it took for a line to become available.
NEWS: It depends on the number of police lines and police operators, doesn’t it?
NEWS: So more police lines and more police operators would make the system quicker. 000 wouldn’t have to wait for a line.
Cdr VANDERLAAN: Yes. That’s the case with everything. If we had more police we’d be more responsive. It’s all relative.
NEWS: Did the call bounce back to 000 a number of times because there was no line available?
Cdr VANDERLAAN: That could have happened.
NEWS: It is unknown how many times it was re-directed.
Cdr VANDERLAAN: Yes, that is unknown. I’ll try and find out from Telstra. It would not have been 46 minutes, that’s for sure. Once the members were dispatched to that job they got there within a couple of minutes.
NEWS: How long did it take the Darwin call centre to find an available unit? Mr Roberts’ first conversation with the Darwin police did not result in a despatch of a unit.
Cdr VANDERLAAN: I’ll get that information for you.
NEWS: There are two gaps, one is how long did it take 000 to get a line to Darwin, and secondly, how long it took the police in Darwin to get an available unit.
Cdr VANDERLAAN: Sometimes that does create delays and we don’t deny that. They are involved in other work, other jobs, there could be a priority on but they are trying to get someone there immediately. They could have been tied up with other jobs. Certainly he was not put on hold for 46 minutes.
NEWS: He was waiting for 46 minutes – isn’t that possible? What was the time span from 000 getting the first call from Mr Roberts to the first unit arriving at the tennis centre?
Cdr VANDERLAAN: I’ll look into that and let you know.
PHOTO: Mr Roberts in the tennis club room where he was under siege and phoned 000.


  1. The first thing I should say is that I empathise utterly with Matt Roberts in this situation.
    Despite the stomach churning feeling of despair that the question “In which state is Alice Springs?” no doubt caused for Mr Roberts under the circumstances, the 000 operator was obtaining as efficiently as possible the information they needed to pass the call quickly to the operational body concerned, in this case the NT Police call centre in Darwin.
    A far more significant issue in terms of speeding the overall response seems to be whether the call taking and despatch process managed from Darwin was adequate, both in terms of equipment and people.
    Commander Vanderlaan is quoted in this article as saying “The issue was, when there are no lines available then it gets re-directed back to Perth and then they will send it back.”
    It seems highly improbable to me that the number of “lines” out of 000 in Perth or into the Darwin police call centre would be in question – after all, the telephone systems and number of lines in both these major centres are (or should have been) dimensioned with major catastrophes such as cyclones and bushfires in mind, where potentially hundreds of people may be calling in simultaneously. So while line unavailability is a possibility, it seems a remote one, and it would be of extreme concern and literally a compound disaster waiting to happen if that were the case.
    The ongoing review of this matter (which should be of concern to everyone in the NT) should therefore distinguish between “lines” and “operators”, so that if the overall delay was in part caused by Mr Roberts’ call(s) being bounced back and forward between Perth and Darwin as appears to be suggested by Cdr Vanderlaan, we need be clear that this could be caused not by lines being unavailable, but by there not being adequate police operators on the police call centre in Darwin to answer the call from 000 quickly.
    If however, Mr Roberts’ calls were answered by 000 within 8 rings (about 25 seconds), and 000’s calls to police in Darwin were answered within a further 53 seconds, and ultimately at the Alice Springs end it took a couple of minutes from despatch to the police arriving, then the great majority of the delay had to do with the despatch process and unit availability, and not the call taking.

  2. Having worked in The Alice (at the “Space Base”) in the past, I am shocked that a 000 (911 in US) gets routed to Perth which is 3600 klicks away, and Darwin (up top) which is 1500 klicks away. I guess I would have probably called the local police in Alice instead of dialing 000.

  3. @BogusBob
    Having used the 131444 number a few times myself, and I think that’s the way to the local copshop, I suspect that had you done so, you would still be waiting.
    And even if you had gotten through, there’s no guarantee that they could have helped. One morning I was asked to identify both the Gap Hotel and where exactly it was on the Todd River. Another time when I mentioned the storm-water channel west of the Fire Station and St John’s, I drew a complete blank.

  4. The really disappointing thing about the Commander’s response to this incident is the attitude somewhat akin to a small child caught with the spilled cookie jar: “It wasn’t me.”
    Frankly, Commander, I and – I suspect – many others, don’t really care weather or not it was your fault. We do however care very much about having a 100% reliable emergency call system that we know will serve to protect our loved ones in a time of emergency
    So please, when receiving a complaint of this nature, don’t turn on the already traumatised messenger!
    Give the community and the victim some sense of care and concern on the part of our police by resisting the bureaucratic urge to cover your departments backside. Take on some responsibility and do your best to reassure the community by getting out there and doing your very best to make sure that it doesn’t happen again! Because nothing is more certain than that delays of this kind in the system, no matter where or how they occur, will eventually cost lives.
    It is the police’s role to protect the community, not the 000 system! If the system is failing in some way, let’s deal with it. For it is failing not only the community, but street level policing’s ability to function in the manner to which they aspire.

  5. I strongly empathise with Matt Roberts on this matter, a siege and a threat to kill is a situation that no one would ever want to find themselves in, never! I suspect that the control room staff at the Darwin Police HQ are doing the best that they can under sometimes extremely stressful emergency situations. I am sure NT Police and the taxpayers have limited funds for control room operations and training, but would more staff or better technology equal a quicker response? More training will most likely help. To ease the angst on this matter the Police and Telstra with Mr Roberts’ approval could make public a real time recording and transcript of this event – surely this would settle any disputes on the matter.
    It would appear from what was said in the above article that either the police budget constraints led to understaffing of the control room or a higher than normal number of incidents were happening in Darwin and / or around the whole of the Northern Territory at the time of Matt’s call(s). If the records were kept from the time 000 calls were being answered at the Alice Springs Police Station, the answering of 000 was possibly problematic and wanting on some occasions even back then in a local control room.
    Maybe the powers that be should be looking back at why, when and how the emergency control room was centralised in Darwin and the reason’s, advice and consultation that were entered into at the time of that decision. Then review that decision and its relevance to the present time, societal expectations, present or future communication technologies, staffing levels and budget allocations.
    Even if we assume 000 can be answered in a reasonable time period and the operator is familiar with the location of the incident, there would be no guarantee that an operational police unit will be available to respond immediately ie. there could be other incidents happening of a similar or of a more serious nature at the same time, thereby warranting a police presence at these incidents as a priority.
    Is the 000system broken? Maybe not. Is there enough staff to man the control room? Maybe not. Are there sufficient operational police officers on duty available to respond at any one time? Probably not. If we had the best system available, would we all agree it is the best system available? No.


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